Sizzlin’ Southern Sayings

Well, I declare!

In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara says: “I do declare, Frank Kennedy, if you don’t look dashing with that new set of whiskers!”

Well, we declare there are plenty of colorful Southern phrases, some of which have become common terms nationwide, such as hold your horses and pretty as a peach. But, you’ll likely only hear the following sayings from a true Southerner. 

I declare / I swaney

Speaking of I declare, Southerners also equally use the phrase I swaney. Both act as flustered responses to an insult or an unbelievable story about someone who sadly made it into the rumor mill (“bless his heart”). The swear-word equivalent would be something along the lines of No sh*t!

I declare may have come from an English oath (the sworn proclamation kind) declaring that no foreign parties have power to subvert the Crown. By extension, maybe the Southern US expression was the way for an affronted or shocked listener to say “none of that crazy untoward talk or behavior shall have power over me.” I swaney means “I swear.” And, Lord-a-mercy, honey, Southerners don’t swear, they swaney.

Shut the front door / Shut your pie hole

Using these forceful expressions to hush up a real son-of-a ___ helps you avoid dropping the f-grenade. But, shut the front door isn’t necessarily a defensive response and can operate as an expression of surprise, just like I do de-clay-uh.

As for the other husher-upper, referencing the offender’s pie hole proclaims the mouth to be nothing but a receptacle for high-caloric sweets that Southerners bake so well. But, we all know subsisting on pies alone, no matter how good they are, will end up making a person entirely unfit (and therefore anything out of that unfit mouth is total horse hockey).

That thing is all catawampus

What’s catawampus? It’s typically used to describe a situation that’s gone askew, awry, or out of alignment.

Curiously, this word might have roots in offbeat British humor from the 1840s. Catawampus (or, cattywampus) may have been popularized by Brits who delighted in parodying Southern vernacular. Somehow, the word went full-circle and is now considered a distinctly Southern invention.

Be fixin' to

We're fixin’ to tell you more Southernisms, and now we’re doing just that. When a feller’s fixin’ to do something, he’s “about to” do it. The doin’ hasn’t been done yet. And, when the doin’s been done, the feller done did it.

Because this is a progressive verb (you’ll make progress with it for sure), remember “You were fixin’ to patch the hole in the wall.” Never say “you fixed to” do it! You’d be in a real fix then.

A hankering for

Having a hankering for something or someone means strongly desiring that thing/person. Surprisingly, hankering is a Dutch word from the 1600s. Hanker meant “to hang.”

The connection makes sense when you figure a feller who’s got a hankering for Mee-Maw’s Pecan Pie, has pert near (that’s “pretty much”) hung all hopes and desires on getting that sweet slice of heaven.

More than Carter’s got little pills

Who's Carter and why does he have so many little pills?

According to Appalachian Magazine, “The real Carter was a man from Erie, Pennsylvania, named Samuel J. Carter. In 1868, he began peddling a pill he said could cure any type of stomach sickness, marketing them as ‘Carter’s Little Liver Pills.’ Within a generation, the pills were being touted to cure, everything from headaches to constipation and indigestion.” Well, if you've got more than Carter’s got little pills that means you've got quite a lot of something, and we reckon' those Southerners are going to comment about it.

Dagnabbit, dagonnit, dadgummit, dad-blasted, dadburnit

That's a mouthful, but we lumped these all together because they are all substitutes for (God) damn it. Unfortunately, Dad gets a bit of a bad rap here, but better him then God. Taking the Lord’s name in vain could result in tanning one’s hide or washing one’s mouth out with soap (or castor oil in the old days).

The nabbit, gonnit, gummit, blasted, and burnit match the rhythm of damn it, but they can easily be modified for use as an adjective or adverb: “That dagnab idiot didn’t look to the dadgum left and, dadburnit, he crossed over in my dad-blasted lane and dadburn near killt me.” When used as a stand-alone oath, hold out on the first syllable and accentuate the second: “DaaadGUMMit! Where’s my blasted phone?” That's real southern twang.

Tarnation

What in tarnation? is a common way to use this next Southern “cussemism.” It traces to the 1700s and is based on darnation, the mild form of damnation. There’s probably a connection between eternal damnation and tarnation.

Historically, Southerners in the Appalachian mountains pronounced eternal as "tarnal." That pronunciation suggests a clever word-smoosh between tarnal and damnation, so the savvy Appalachians could euphemistically express their anger without wasting an extra breath. Well, hell’s bells.

Rode hard and put up wet

This expression (sometimes heard as rode hard and put away wet) describes something that’s mistreated or poorly cared for. It comes from the practice of riding a horse hard without letting it cool down afterward. That's real horse puckey . . . .

Horse puckey (horse hockey)

To express the emotional grotesqueness, dismay, or disgust to which only fecal muck can truly compare, Southerners are heard to exclaim horse puckey or horse hockey. You can guess which cussin’ cousin these expressions are akin to.

Now, Southerners aren’t known for their adoration of hockey (the sport), but the words puckey (also pucky) and hockey might be used because patties of dried cow or horse excrement resemble large hockey pucks. More likely, hockey (not the sport) derives from hokum, a blend of hocus-pocus and bunkum, to mean “complete nonsense.”

Reckon

I reckon is the way most Southerners get to surmising about something or other. “I reckon she skipped town on account of her mama being madder than a wet hen.” Alongside fixin’ to, this is a quintessential term to strike a match under your vocab and hear it holler “Yeehaw, hey y’all!!!”

Reckon has ancestry tracing all the way back to the 1000s (and maybe older still). Folks from the South value heritage a right bit, so keeping reckon in the language family keeps Southerners grinnin’ like possums eatin’ sweet taters (that’s an expression for “really happy”).

Full as a tick

After eating that big, delicious Southern dinner Granny just made, you have to finish up with a slice of sweet potato pie, right? Well, that might just push you over the edge, and as you lean back you're bound to say, “I’m as full as a tick.” It'd be plumb crazy not to express yourself (and your full belly) with this classic Southern idiom. 

Plumb

What plumbers do. Also, what poets do to understand the “depths” of life’s bottomless ocean.

And, for the Southern in blood and at heart, a perfect punchy adverb for when something or someone is “totally,” “absolutely,” “completely” fill-in-the-blank. “Sally Ann Whirlwind Crockett was plumb crazy to wrastle that bear on an empty stomach! Shoo-wee, I tell yuh!”

Lick

Sure, go ahead and lick your ice cream cone. In true Southern hospitality, we’ll even ask you “what else you need?” But, that’s not the kind of lick we’re talking about.

There are a couple Southern definitions of lick. The unsavory one, which means “hit or beat,” is what happens when Ma hears a dirty word escape her youngen’s lips. “Boy, you want a lickin’?” The other definition is “a tiny speck”: “You don’t have a lick of sense to be cussin’ like that!” Maybe, Ma will be lenient and give her boy a lick of a lickin’, or nary a whuppin at all, if he’s lucky.

Can’t never could

This string of double negatives is actually meant as encouragement! Can’t never could is a reminder that if you don’t even try, you won't ever accomplish your goal. Georgia-born blogger Jennifer Collins says she always rolled her eyes when her mom said this to her. Now, she admits to saying this to her children. And yes, they roll their eyes, too. A true Southern tradition.

Piddly/Piddlin'

If piddly or piddlinsound like they’re not worth much, you got more than a lick of sense—or, as a certain triangular wood and peg game at a big Southern chain restaurant would say: “you’re purty smart.”

“That piddly doo-hickey I bought online won’t trim an ant’s whiskers, gol-dernit!” From piddle and later piddling, (British English words for “work in a trifling way”), piddle also meant “to pee” (piddle-wee-wee) but that piddlin’ definition didn’t fare well ‘cross the pond.

Hell's bells

To express surprise, dismay, confoundedness, anger, and every emotion in between, Southerners use playful phrases like hell’s bells. Really sensitive, gentile folks might not appreciate hell so undisguised (they prefer “h-e-double-l” if they have to refer to it at all). But, something about the rhyme here makes it less obscene to most.

When the emotion is less charged (or when you’re so taken aback most words fail), the phrase can be prefaced with the interjection well (as if saying “Well, how do you like that”). Otherwise, hell’s bells on its own can signify stronger anger or emphasis: “Hell’s bells, if you only knew what trouble you caused! You don’t have a lick of sense!”

That dog won’t hunt

Maybe not all dogs were made for hunting . . . some prefer the warmth of a fireplace and the comfort of your lap. But, in the South, if your boss says “that dog won’t hunt” in a meeting, it probably means your suggestion or idea needs improvement. Poor little doggy.

This phrase enjoyed national exposure in 1988 after Texas Governor Ann Richards remarked: "When we pay billions for planes that won’t fly, billions for tanks that won’t fire, and billions for systems that won’t work—that old dog won’t hunt.”

I’ll be dog

Dog, like dad, takes a lot of the heat in the South. Dog take the luck means “Well I’m just crud outta luck.” And, I’ll be dog is another way of saying “I’ll be damned,” made mild by invoking man’s best friend instead of tarnal damnation.

What in the Sam Hill?

Sam Hill steps in for “h-e-double-bean-poles” or “flipping ugly crazy kudzu” (what the bold letters spell). Nobody knows who Sam Hill is, but stories abound that he was a proprietor of a strange-goods store, a millionaire businessman, or a foul-mouthed geologist.

Some even think he was the Devil himself, tracing Sam Hill to Samiel, the name of the Devil in a German opera performed in the US in 1825. What in the Sam Hill dates to the 1830s, so this story’s plausible, but who in the Sam Hill knows?

Yonder

Yonder might just be Southerners’ favorite way to say “over there.” It works well on its own and pairs with “over” and “down” mighty fine, too: “Down yonder’s the fishing hole and over yonder that-a-way’s a good eatin’ place for dinner.” By the way, in the South, dinner means “lunch” and supper is . . . well “supper,” of course.

If I had my druthers

In the 1956 Broadway musical Li’l Abner, the title character sings the song “If I Had My Druthers.” Well, apparently druthers are a matter of personal preference. Having your druthers essentially means getting your way.

With great insight, Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, wrote, “We can’t always have our druthers.” Wise words.

Sugar honey iced tea

What better way to sweeten the sour than with a classic Southern libation? Yelling out this acrostic for the sh** word might just tame the anger a bit. Take a load off the ol’ dogs, sit on your front porch, and let your know neighbors know about that sugar honey iced tea you had to deal with today.

Got a swing? Even better.

Witch's tit / Goat’s butt / Blue blazes

If you’re freezing cold, try out a variation of this: “It’s colder than a witch’s tit (in a brass bra in January)!”

But, if you’re sweating bullets, you’re probably . . . “Hotter than a goat’s butt in a pepper patch!” or “Hotter than blue blazes!”

Mama-slappin'

When biting into that homemade cake with puffy clouds of sweet frosting, it’s more than delicious, it’s so good it makes me wanna slap my mama! Or, a shorter version: It’s mama-slappin’ good!

Granny, Grandpa, Daddy, or any other kin can make an appearance here, too. Of course, if you actually did slap your pappy (or any other kin), you’d have another thing comin’!

The creek don’t rise

Often said as “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise”—this means, with a little bit of luck and no unexpected problems, things should work out.

It seems this saying is a favorite expression of country singers. Johnny Cash had a hit with the song “If The Good Lord’s Willing,” and Hank Williams Jr. titled his song  “If the Good Lord’s Willin’ (And The Creeks Don’t Rise).” If it's in a country song, it must be country.

Ugly stick / Ugly tree

If someone has the rotten luck to be plumb ugly, there are a couple indelicate but delicious Southernisms to call out:

“Bless his heart, that poor boy got hit with the ugly stick.” That means, the boy is pretty ugly (and whenever stating an ugly fact, Southerners always bless the poor victim's heart before doing it). If the unlucky wretch, bless his heart, fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, the feller looks no better than a varmint in a slop jar (translation: "wild animal in a piss-pot").

Kiss my grits

Here's a false Southern saying if we ever heard one . . . even though kiss my grits now has inextricably Southern roots and is scrawled across t-shirts, hats, and other memorabilia, the exclamation wasn’t born in the South. It was dreamed up by Hollywood screenwriters for the 1970s–80s TV show Alice.

Honeydew was a trial word, but Kiss my honeydew didn’t get the laughs. Grits did. Maybe, that’s because “Girls Raised In The South” are so gawl-darn funny.

Great balls of fire!

Great balls of fire! is another exclamation that saves the exclaimer from taking the Lord’s name in vain. The phrase can express frustration, surprise, or delight without giving Ma a fright. People started using the expression in the 1850s. If uttering God’s name directly in a curse was prohibited, making an oblique association to God was okay. The Bible makes several references to God’s presence manifested as fire.

Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) (coming full circle, because it's impossible to not reference the ultimate Southern movie more than once in a Sizzlin' Southern slideshow) exclaimed the phrase several times, firmly connecting the expression with the South.

Great balls of fire. Don’t bother me anymore, and don’t call me sugar.”

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